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Posts Tagged ‘temptations’


Sometimes “life” just gets in the way of all good intentions.

A few years ago I read Antinomianism by Mark Jones and when discussing the doctrine of assurance he mentioned Anthony Burgess (the Puritan, not the author of A Clockwork Orange). While reading The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson the subject and Burgess came up again in the footnotes. So I bought a copy of recently released version of Faith Seeking Assurance (FSA) by Burgess in the Puritan Treasures for Today.

While I finished reading the book in December, I went on vacation and returned to a crazy schedule that included preparing for a church trial, and presbytery meeting. I came down with “the” cold (I’m still coughing 4 weeks later), experienced a pastoral crisis or two, helped interview a church planter and we hosted a financial seminar. I think I am returning to normalcy and this review is still waiting for me.

That is how my brain works. I need to clear this out so I can move on to the next review of a book I just finished.

The doctrine of assurance is one of those neglected doctrines these days. Recently we’ve seen a spat of books about the Trinity and union with Christ which had been neglected for a long time. Maybe this doctrine will experience a literary resurgence. But until then … we pretty much have this book. Thankfully it is a very good book, but since I just worked thru this subject in the Westminster Standards for a SS class- there is more to be said.

FSA is a typically Puritan book in its style and structure. If you aren’t familiar with the Puritans, one way to describe them would be a dog with a bone, chewing, chewing, chewing. I’d say a cow chewing its cud, but that sounds too “gentle”. Perhaps another way of putting it is drilling down deep into a doctrine, looking at it from a variety of angles.

“… ecclesiastical discipline being to the church what the sword is to the Commonwealth.”

The assurance of which we speak is assurance as a reflex action- the assurance that we are saved by knowing we have believed and depend upon the merit of Christ. As a direct action, faith believes that God actually saves sinners. In this way, following Calvin, assurance is an element of faith.

“In his reflex acts of faith, the confidence that a believer has of the truth of grace wrought in him comes more from God’s Spirit removing his slavish fears and disposition and supporting the soul than it does from the excellence and beauty of grace within him.”

He begins with the necessity of assurance by bringing us to Corinth and Paul’s letters to them. Professing Christians can be quite content in their lusts. Paul advised them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith rather than continue to exhibit presumption. In this way we differ from Roman Catholicism in which only those who receive a secret revelation can have such knowledge (think the saints, not ordinary Christians). But Scripture indicates we can know, and God generally wants His children to know that they are in fact saved.

Its advantage is likened to the man who has actually tasted honey and knows its sweetness experientially instead of simply theoretically. It provides a security in affliction, rather than a false security in our guilt. It also helps us to enjoy the sweetness of the sacraments, ceasing from useless arguments with others and focusing on your own heart (warning: we can be overly introspective however, and we are supposed to be looking outward to Christ who is our salvation), focusing on obedience and service. What gets in the way? He notes self-love, carnal confidence and the temptation to unbelief. We can also use false standards to determine whether or not we are saved.

“… some Christians rest in knowing the doctrine of the gospel and in the outward use of ordinances without ever feeling the weight of sin.”

From these introductory matters he spends time addressing the reality of hypocrites. Some have an historical faith: “They have the kind of historical faith that the devils possess. It is no real faith at all, but, at most, only a human assent.” There is intellectual agreement of a sort, but no resting in Christ. There are also those, like in the parable of the sower, who are temporary believers. They are part of the visible church, seem to be filled with joy, but eventually return to their sin and unbelief.

True Christians: “These Christians are incorporated into Christ’s body and so receive a vivifying influence from Him as a living branch in the vine or a living member in the body.”

One of the more interesting obstacles to gaining assurance that Burgess mentions is that we can resist the ministry of the Spirit to provide it. The basic notion is that the flesh resists all motions toward holiness, and all reception of spiritual blessings. Other obstacles are guilt over sins committed, temptations experienced and the Evil One who wants to destroy the joy of our salvation since he can’t actually destroy our salvation.

This means a believer may actually be saved, but not have assurance. They may have doubts and fears. But gaining assurance gives us greater peace and joy in our salvation.

Thomas Goodwin spoke of a father and son walking on the road. The father picks up the son, holds him and kisses him. The son was just as much his son when he was standing by the father, or even running from him. But his experience of being a son was better, more nurturing when the father held and kissed him. Assurance is like being held and kissed, our experience of salvation is sweeter. But we may still be saved even when we don’t experience this.

Burgess provides remedies for carnal confidence and directions for those who lack assurance. While God generally wants us to have assurance, it is not all He wants for us. He also wants us holy and humble. If assurance will make you proud or slothful at a given point in time, God may choose to withhold assurance for this greater good.

“We should not so gaze upon ourselves to find graces in our hearts that we forget those acts of faith whereby we immediately close with Christ and rely upon Him only for our justification.”

Assurance starts with the simple question, do you believe in Christ? If you don’t you have no ground for assurance. In seeing if you truly believe or have a counterfeit faith (see Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits), you look to sanctification and whether common graces are at work in you. You aren’t looking for perfection, but progress. And in this someone else may help for often we see the sin, not the progress. In terms of common graces, is there a desire for worship, prayer, Bible reading, fellowship etc. These are faith at work. The desire for them is a work of the Spirit. The one who has never and doesn’t currently desire them has no grounds for assurance. There can be dry spells, and during them we generally don’t have assurance.

This is not a perfect book. It is a good and worthwhile book. For those who are not familiar with the Puritans, there is a learning curve. There is much to discover here, but I did find myself wanting more when I was done. Sadly, I can’t recall exactly what that more was. At this time, this and the chapters in The Whole Christ are the primary works on this important and often misunderstood subject.

 

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A while ago one of the admissions guys from our denominational seminary was in town and stopped by. We talked for awhile. A short time later a book arrived in the mail. It was The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. As a result I read it while on study leave.

I am reminded of the story of Elisha hounding Elijah because he knew it was time for Elijah to “go home”. He asked for a double portion (the firstborn son’s inheritance). As I read this book I got the impression that he is the new Eugene Peterson. This is about the man in ministry and how he goes about ministry. It is not ivory tower theory, but born of the intersection of theology and life.

I am also reminded of the great men in Scripture who thought they would be great on their own terms, and then God humbled them and they became more useful. Zack is not the hero of this story, and neither are we. This is an honest book about the hard lessons he learned.

This is not a “perfect book”, and that is perfectly fine. There is plenty here to encourage, humble and re-direct. He breaks the book into 4 sections: Calling, Temptations, Reshaping the Inner Life and Reshaping the Work. There is an element of who the reader is that impacts how any book is perceived. For me the lag was in the 3rd section. In some ways though I suspect he could make a cottage industry of this with the Imperfect Husband, the Imperfect Father ….. precisely because this material does apply to all of these callings.

“My pastoral desires had become tainted, and I did not realize it. A lot of us don’t. We and our congregations suffer for it.”

The main part I took away from the first section on calling is the intersection of God’s calling and our past. Our history is important because we don’t just shake it off. It comes with us into our calling, and makes our fulfilling that calling more difficult. Our history shapes who we are (grace does too), often in ways we cannot or do not perceive. The more we ignore our history, the more it will impact how we do ministry.

The temptations pastors face, and are sometimes thrust upon them as demands, are important. In this section he has something of a mantra: “You and I were never meant to repent for not ___________. You and I are meant to repent because we tried to be.” His issue is our attempt to be like God, not in terms of His communicable attributes but in terms of His incommunicable attributes. We want to be everywhere (and at the right time), able to fix everything, knowing everything and that everything can happen NOW. Here he quotes Eugene Peterson:

“I think the besetting sin of pastors, maybe especially evangelical pastors, is impatience.”

luke-face-dark-side-caveThese temptations are part of the context of fulfilling our calling. We cannot avoid these temptations, but must face them much like Luke Skywalker has to face the temptations of the dark side. Except this doesn’t happen in a cave, but in the course of ministry.

“When Jesus begins to rescue us from trying to fix it all, know it all, be everywhere for all as fast and as famously as possible, we find ourselves in a hard spot.”

The 3rd section sounds like it has been greatly influenced by The Contemplative Pastor. He encourages speaking less and listening more (James 1:19). There will be a time to speak, but first we must listen. This is made even more difficult in the social media/sound bite world we live in. He offers three thoughts for other pastors for us to ponder in our “detox”.

  1. The boundaries of your calling reveal God’s pastoral care for you. He knows our limitations and capacities, precisely because He gave them to you. He doesn’t expect you to go beyond those limitations. Respect them.
  2. In trying so hard not to miss out, you actually create the thing you fear. Too many pastors are so busy going to conferences that they miss out on their actual calling. I’m not called to go to conferences, but to shepherd people.
  3. Smaller is always better than larger unless, and only if, God extrudes us. I’ve only been a small church pastor. I see some larger church pastors struggling to actually shepherd. They are teachers (and there are times I wish I was primarily a teaching/preaching “pastor”). God does put some people in these larger contexts, but we have to resist the selfish ambition that claws for them, always looking for the next, better & bigger position instead of shepherding the people where you are.

“When the three-fold omni-temptation to be like God takes hold of us with speed, we gradually turn to the Bible as a tool kit to make our programs work or our sermons applaudable rather than as the words of our Beloved meant to help anyone anywhere find the way home.”

The last two chapters, Local Knowledge and Leadership, are among the high points of the book. Ministry does not happen in a vacuum, but in a real place which is different from other real places. So he talks about how to grow in knowledge of your place (made more difficult with the internet which helps us know about every other place). Leadership takes a slower pace, more intentional and contemplative, including training. I’ve done some of this in training- the idea of shadowing and attending meetings to see how the guy fits in and approaches things. I can do more.

So, the bottom line is that I highly recommend this book to pastors and elders. The pastor cannot change the local culture and expectations alone. He needs the help of those in leadership with him. As they embrace the things Zack talks about, the healthier their leadership and churches will become.

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I wish I had more time to read books on history and historical events. There are so many topics I want to learn about. But when the title of your book is Shot All to Hell, you go to the top of the queue. Mark Lee Gardner likes to use “hell” (or h-e-double hockey sticks as Radar used to say) in his book titles. I’ll have to get his To Hell on a Fast Horse which is about Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Here Gardner tackles the attempted robbery that ended the James-Younger gang.

I saw this book last winter while wandering SkyHarbor airport while CavWife and kids ate breakfast before they went east for a vacation. It intrigued me, so it ended up putting it on my wish list and got it Christmas (thanks, CavWife!). As a result I read it while on my Christmas vacation. I’ve been a bit busy so I’m finally getting to this.

“They excelled at deception- they had to.”

Gardner notes that it presents a peculiar difficulty in writing about outlaws since lying is a way of life for them. Their own testimony in books, newspaper articles and to friends tends to be unreliable. He looked at other eyewitness testimony as well. This may be as close to the truth as we’ll get to the Northfield Raid.

He begins with the Rocky Cut train robbery which has been attributed to the James-Younger gang to introduce us to them. His point? They knew what they were doing, which makes the failed robbery in Northfield all the more interesting.

“Before September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang had never been challenged, denied, or defeated.”

If they had high school yearbooks then, they would not have been voted “Most Likely to be Famous Criminals” or infamous criminals. They appear to have come for generally good homes. The Younger family was wealthy enough to have slaves prior to the Civil War, and they were “well-schooled, church-going Missourians.” The James brothers grew up as the sons of “a cultured, college-educated Baptist minister.” They too owned slaves.

That is important because both families supported the Confederate States in the conflict. This is what changed everything for both families. Both families suffered at the hands of Kansas jayhawkers. The sons would meet as part of the Quantrill Raiders where they became familiar with  bloodshed and utilizing guerrilla tactics. The war hardened them, and the South’s defeat set the stage for their life of crime which they seemed to view as vigilante justice.

“Circumstances sometimes make people what they are,” Bob once said. “If it had not been for the war, I might have been something, but as it is, I am what I am.”

The book is quite entertaining. I often pondered what it would be like to put together as a movie. As with the real story there are explosive bursts of excitement including the failed robbery and shootout, and then the gunfight that resulted in the capture of the Younger portion of the gang.

Woven into the story is the story of the man Jesse hoped to kill in Minnesota- attorney Sam Hardwicke. Hardwicke was instrumental in a Pinkerton raid that intended to apprehend the James’ boys but resulted in the death of young Archie. This is part of what drove the gang to MN in the first place.

The story brings in the advances in safes that made life difficult for the erstwhile robbers. Gardner also delves into the conflicts and arrogance of the men leading the search for the gang. He also notes the conflicts within the gang, particularly Jesse and Cole Younger’s struggle for power.

It is a story of violence, near misses, second chances and imprisonment. It is a fascinating story, and Gardner tells it, usually, in a very interesting manner. The details of their escape makes you wonder if they wished they’d just been captured in the first place. It was, at times, that unpleasant.

If you like history, and tales of the old west, this is the book for you. Circumstances shape and mold us, opening us up to particular temptations. Sometimes they help us make excuses for ourselves. You will see in them your own tendency to justify your own indiscretions. Lastly you see that sin has a bitter price, and you will pay it eventually.

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David Powlison’s chapter, Making All Things New: Restoring Pure Joy to the Sexually Broken in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, is excellent.  Keep in mind it is quite long (41 pages), and took me a few sittings with a busy schedule.

It is just recently that I’ve begun to appreciate David Powlison.  My first brush with biblical counseling was Jay Adams.  His writings seemed more polemical and extreme.  If Powlison was the primary spokesperson, perhaps lots of misunderstanding between the various camps of Christian counseling would have been avoided.  But alas, it was not so.  This quote in particular illustrates my point: “It’s about moving along a trajectory away from the dark and toward the light.  It’s about knowing where you are heading while you’re still somewhere in the middle.”  Sounds alot like pilgrimage.  And one of the early criticisms of people like Jay Adams was that it sounded like if you just repented all would be well.  Yes, if you recall that repentance is a life-long process.

So Powlison doesn’t want us to despair of change (you hear this in some people- once an addict, always an addict).  Nor does he want us to think change is easy and quick.  Over time real progress is made as we move from addressing the flagrant sins to addressing the more fundamental root sins.  It is not an easy fight, like just hitting a pitch.  It is more like football (the Jollyblogger ought to be happy) where you are fighting the line, the backs and safeties.

Okay… First, we should bring light to all that darkens sex.  Powlison breaks this down into unholy pleasure (overt sexual immorality & perversity), unholy pain (healing for victims of abuse), guilt, viewing sexual sin as a male problem (it just looks different in women), and sexual struggles in marriage (we bring baggage from the previously mentioned problems).

(more…)

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